There are times when music seems nice, even pleasant. Then there is music that causes each of us to take a step back, to not just hear it but listen to it, because it is just too original, too beautiful to ignore.
In recent years, this has only happened to me three times — when I heard Liisi Koikson for the first time, singing “Varjud”, her voice audible through my hotel room open window; it also happened when I heard Jonsi Birgisson’s song “Animal Arithmetic” for the first time. And that brief euphoric feeling came to me whilst listening to the title track from Ingrid Lukas‘s 2009 debut album, “We Need to Repeat”. I only hope that everyone gets that feeling at some point — that music cannot be any more beautiful.
“We Need to Repeat” was followed by 2011’s “Silver Secrets”, for which Ingrid was signed to Universal Music. Along with the major-label backing came a fuller sound, still containing the delicate touch that was so admirable in the first record, but adding power to her voice, and to the music that surrounded it.
“The music is like me as a character; I’m changing and developing, and the third album is going to be different too.”
“It just felt right at that moment,“ she explained to me over Skype. “Records are only moments, and I started somewhere — if you start, you have no idea how to put a record together; two years of work was behind that.” Did she get a sense of vulnerability and openness coming across in that first album? “I worked with the Swiss pianist, composer and producer Nik Bärtsch on that album, and it just came out as it was at that time. As a person I was still working on my own language and sound, and maybe I was a little bit insecure. I realised that I sang everything very high, and on the second one the voice was much deeper. The music is like me as a character; I’m changing and developing, and the third album is going to be different too.”
I asked her to tell me a little more about the forthcoming album, due to be released in early 2014, and what her motivation was going into its recording. “I know a little more what I want. We will produce the whole album by ourselves; it will have a lot more beats in it, and electronics. We were in the studio last month, recording the basics, and now we are building a new sound-world into it.”
In an era where many established Estonian artists are stepping away from pop and electronics, finding more adventure in other genres, it seemed to me to confirm Ingrid was taking a different path to her peers, by recording what might be deemed a more “commercial” album third time around. Had there been any pressure from her label to put together a record that would sell in increased numbers? “Oh, no – I’m very happy that we can do whatever we want.” She has a good working relationship with Universal, who have been a very supportive label.
Ingrid was born and brought up in Estonia, but at the age of 10 she moved to Zürich, Switzerland, with her mother. “Her husband is Swiss, they fell in love and got married and she took me with her.” She still has much of her family in the country of her birth, though. “My father and grandparents live in Estonia, so I still have that strong link to Estonia.”
“When I went looking for my own style, I went to Estonia, to my roots, and the next step was Estonian traditional regilaul. I feel this strong connection; it is home, and if I’m not home, I carry home with me; if I sing these songs, I feel connected. I am Estonian and I am proud!”
I wondered if it ever felt to her that she was becoming distant from the place she regards as her homeland. Ingrid was quick to explain that this was not so. Estonia is where all her song-writing comes from. Her albums feature songs in both English and Estonian, and many songs take the Estonian choral tradition as their starting point. “When I went looking for my own style, I went to Estonia, to my roots, and the next step was Estonian traditional regilaul (Runic singing is a traditional way of singing folk songs — Editor). I feel this strong connection; it is home, and if I’m not home, I carry home with me; if I sing these songs, I feel connected. I am Estonian and I am proud!”
“There are so many Estonian people that live in other countries. We are such a small country with so few Estonians in the world that we should take care of each other and spread the Estonian spirit and speak the Estonian language even if we are not at home. And it’s also important that if we have children we speak Estonian in front of them and teach them the Estonian language and culture, because it survived over so many years and so many attacks by other nations.”
“There are so many Estonian people that live in other countries. We are such a small country with so few Estonians in the world that we should take care of each other and spread the Estonian spirit and speak the Estonian language even if we are not at home.”
I asked her why she felt so strongly about Estonia, even when at a distance from the country. “I think, because I am away, the feeling gets even stronger. I’m not sure if I would have lived in Estonia my whole life, the feeling would have been so strong. What is very inspiring for me is the tension within me between these two countries, because when I am in Switzerland, I see Estonia from outside, and I feel what I miss about Estonia; and when I am in Estonia, I miss Switzerland.”
Switzerland is a place with a different mentality to Estonia in many ways, and I wanted to know how this had shaped Ingrid. “I am definitely more open. I don’t know if this is because, as a musician, you go on a stage and open yourself completely — I don’t tell everything about my private life, although I think I am more open than Estonians on average.”
It always fascinates me to hear about an artist’s creative process. Ingrid told me about the need to find a personal inner peace, in order to write the kind of songs she wants to write. “In November and December I was in Estonia in the woods; the forest, the sea, the roots and me, and I found it there.”
Is her song-writing still governed by improvisation? “Yes, it is. I am a “free bird”, and I get these moments when I go over to my studio. Every morning I get this opportunity to see what’s going to happen. I have no rules. I try to invite inspiration, and then when it’s there I try to follow it. Sometimes I just put my hands on the piano, and sometimes it IS something, and sometimes… it’s crap. The most important thing is to keep going, not to condemn yourself, because it may need these steps.”
“My deepest question was how to find my own style. It was always an important question for me. I went looking for my own style outside, I made a circle, I looked around, what were the influences that made my character and made my music. At the end I came back to myself. My own style is already within me.”
“I have always composed my own music, since I was 13 years old, and I started to study in music school when I was 17. My deepest question was how to find my own style. It was always an important question for me. I went looking for my own style outside, I made a circle, I looked around, what were the influences that made my character and made my music. At the end I came back to myself. My own style is already within me.”
Back to her trip to Estonia, Ingrid explained how not everything had gone according to plan. “I went to Estonia, and thought, ‘I’m going to have these ten weeks off, and work really hard,’ but for a while nothing happened. I needed to arrive in the silence. My body needed to arrive. This world is so overwhelming, and you get lost really easy. When I went to this silence, and finally had the time and room to breathe, it took me weeks to find and feel the essence again.”
“So at this time it’s really hard, because I’m used to running around, and doing ten things at the same time, and sometimes you need to take time off and trust the right thing will come at the right time. I need a lot of things going on, but then at other times I need silence. That’s maybe my Estonian part; I need slowness and I need breaks.”
The live experience is very important to Ingrid’s life as an artist. “Two months ago we were in the opera [house] in Halle in Germany, it was sold out, 800 people were there, and the energy just started to flow. Because it’s not just us, it’s also the audience, and if it’s right, it can be amazing. I just love to share my passion on stage. That’s where magic can happen. After the concerts I always go to the merch table and talk with people. They give it back to me – if they’re happy and shining, and their eyes are sparkling, so that’s enough!”
How did Ingrid’s two forthcoming concerts in the US come about? I knew that she had performed for the Estonian President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves on his recent tour of the United States, which she agreed was a proud moment for her. “It started with a concert in New York last fall. The Estonian embassy invited me to play a concert for President Ilves. There I met the general consul Mr. Sten Schwede and Kristi Roosmaa, who are organising my concert in New York this time. Maria Belovas, the press and cultural affairs attaché in Washington invited me to play a concert in Washington. I am really excited about that.”
We finished our chat exchanging impressions of the song festival (Laulupidu — Editor) in Tallinn, the “energy and power” of Estonia and the Estonian people. Clearly energy and power guides this intelligent, engaging artist on in life.
Ingrid Lukas will be performing at Rockwood Music Hall in New York on 17 May, and then at the American University in Washington, DC, on 19 May. My hope is that you feel as refreshed listening to her wonderful music as I did.
Kristi Roosmaa Tootell, Cultural Affairs Coordinator at the Consulate General of Estonia in New York, on Ingrid Lukas:
“I couldn’t agree more with the Estonian radio show host, Koit Raudsepp, who said that Ingrid Lukas is the best-kept state secret. What an amazing talent! I love her unique style, fierce stage presence and authenticity. She’s different and that makes you remember her.”
“I’m very excited for Ingrid’s Rockwood Music Hall debut. Rockwood is considered one of the most popular live music venues for emerging artists. People from all over America try to get a performance at this hot spot. Getting through the talent pool as a non-American artist and getting a chance to perform in these venues is an achievement by itself, so I’m thrilled that she has an amazing spot, 8pm on Friday.”
Photos by Anja Fonseka & Arvo Wichmann